Investment club gets in on bottom floor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 November, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 November, 2005, 12:00am

Apply a little Richard Branson-type thinking to the real estate industry and you'd probably end up with a bricks and mortar version of his upstart airline Virgin Atlantic.

What would it look like and how would it work? It's not too much of a stretch to say it would resemble the business model of Instant Access Group, a British-based company founded by Bradley Rosser, who admits he stole a page from Mr Branson's book when establishing the company five years ago.

Having worked as Mr Branson's 'right hand man' - group corporate director for Virgin - in the late 1990s, Mr Rosser says he was able to unlock the maverick billionaire's secrets and turn them to the advantage of aspiring property owners - and property speculators.

He settled on an investment-club model. Potential property purchasers pay a fee to join the club, enabling them access to 'off plan' investment flats in places such as Britain, Spain and Florida. Using its buying power, Instant Access is able to secure discounts - typically 10 to 15 per cent- from property developers while the projects are still little more than blueprints.

By buying a property a year or two before completion, investors then have a choice of either selling it when it is finished or holding it in the hope prices will rise. The recommended outlook is five to 10 years, says Mr Rosser, but the typical investors hold the investment for two to four years.

Instant Access benefits by charging a 3 per cent commission against all sales. 'We saw a wonderful opportunity to bring the ability of the mass market at an affordable price to get into residential property and make great returns for themselves,' Mr Rosser says. 'There was a feeling that the people who were doing it were doing it in an amateurish way.'

It is a formula that has proved highly successful. The group is the largest of its kind operating in Britain, accounting for 5 per cent of sales of new flats in Britain last year, valued at #1.3 billion ($17.6 billion). Since it launched five years ago, Instant Properties has about 5,000 members and has sold 4,300 units. It claims investors have made #139 million in profit.

Hong Kong investors must pay a joining fee of $48,800. Next year the fee will rise to $88,800. Once on board, investors can purchase as many flats as they like without additional charges, apart from the commission fee. Mr Rosser says some investors buy a dozen or more flats, but the average is 1.8 units per member. 'What's different is that we're actually working for the investor, unlike a real estate agent or property adviser who is typically working for the developers,' Mr Rosser says.

As part of its service, the company performs an extensive study of markets, selecting only areas and projects that make financial sense. These include estimates of projected rental yield, which are used to secure bank financing in places such as Britain. They say 80 per cent of projects considered are eventually rejected because they fall below the value benchmark.

Mr Rosser says the company's research will also help investors avoid over-valued markets, as well as bad projects or deals that will be hard to sell in future. Most favoured at the moment are urban regeneration projects in northern Britain. Expensive prices are one reason the National Health Service and the BBC are moving jobs out of London to more affordable cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds.

Among the projects currently recommended is the Riverside Park project in Aigburth, Liverpool. Part of a GBP3 billion regeneration project, two-bedroom units start at GBP119,000. The completion date is set for early next year. Mr McKay says the list price on the units is GBP163,000, representing a 27 per cent discount to Instant Access buyers.

Among the investment risks, Mr Rosser highlights the chance the market could drop between the purchase and delivery stage.

'There is a risk the market will move against you. I would caveat that by saying it would have to move quite significantly to go below the value our member purchased at because it would have to go down from a 10 to 15 per cent discount for you to just break even.'